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No Ordinary Lame Duck: Obama Fights Back

Obama has demonstrated over the past 30 days that he’s not going to be your ordinary lame duck heading into his final two years in office.
US President Barack Obama speaks to US troops at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, December 15, 2014. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEBSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty ImagesSAUL LOEB / AFP - Getty Images

A month after the shellacking his party took in the midterm elections, President Obama has demonstrated over the past 30 days that he’s not going to be your ordinary lame duck heading into his final two years in office. Instead, call him the active-duck president. On Nov. 20, he announced his executive action on immigration, and has since seen his approval rating among Latinos increase to 57%, per our new NBC/WSJ/Telemundo oversample of American Latinos. A week ago, the Obama White House worked the phones and twisted just enough arms to ensure that Congress passed its spending bill. And yesterday, the president announced an historic normalizing of relations with Cuba. Now this all isn’t to say that the immigration and Cuba actions aren’t producing political blowback -- Republicans have retreated to early next year to fight the immigration action via the appropriations process, and plenty howled at normalizing relations with Cuba. Despite the controversy and gridlock, however, Obama is getting stuff done. And he’s got other good news to tout (321,000 jobs created in November, enrollment on HealthCare.Gov has reached nearly 2.5 million). Now it remains to be seen how long this lasts or just how popular Obama’s actions will ultimately be. But one thing is for sure: No one can say the president isn’t relevant.

Flashback to this time four years ago

Interestingly, all of this activity from Obama is reminiscent to what happened a month after the Democrats’ shellacking four years ago in the 2010 midterms. Back then, Obama struck his deal with Republicans (trading a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts for a payroll-tax cut). He signed legislation ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And he got his New START treaty with Russia (though don’t ask the White House what happened with Russia after getting that treaty). Obama’s supporters have to wonder: Why does it usually take a punch in the face to get Obama to fight back?

Why Cuban-American politics doesn’t have the punch it once did

Turning to yesterday’s announcement on Cuba, we saw most Democrats supporting it (the exceptions being Cuban-American Dems like Sen. Bob Menendez), and we saw most Republicans opposing it (the exception being Sen. Jeff Flake). So it sounds like your normal occurrence in Washington, right? But we’re not so sure yesterday’s announcement turns out to be a big political player in the long term. Why? One of the big reasons is that anti-Castro politics doesn’t have the punch in Florida it once did. After all, in 2012, Obama won the Cuban-American vote in Florida, 49%-47%, according to the exit polls, even though the opposition portrayed him as a Castro appeaser. And Obama narrowly won the state in that contest. And in 2014, Democrat Charlie Crist -- who supported normalizing relations with Cuba -- won Cuban-Americans by 50%-46%, even though Crist lost his election against Gov. Rick Scott. Cuban-Americans made up 4% of all voters in this gubernatorial race.

Rubio takes full advantage of the Cuba news

That said, Cuban-American politics still plays an important role within the Republican Party -- especially in Florida -- and we saw Marco Rubio jump into the fray. So one day after Jeb Bush’s announcement that he’s actively exploring a presidential run, Rubio took full advantage of a news cycle, appearing on every TV channel that would have him. We’re unsure that a GOP presidential contest can feature BOTH Jeb and Rubio. But at least from yesterday’s activity, Rubio isn’t going to retreat quietly.

Obama’s false note

As for Obama’s Cuba announcement, there was one false note: He was a bit too giddy about the normalization of relations. Yes, yesterday was historic. But you can’t ignore how brutal the Castro regime has been, and you can’t ignore the Cuban Americans who were hurt (or who know someone hurt) by the Cuban Revolution. Had Obama been a little more skeptical about the new relationship with Cuba -- saying something like, “We don’t know if this is going to work, but we’re going to give it a try” -- he would have given himself a bit more cover. One can make a strong argument that the past 55 years of U.S. policy towards Cuba hasn’t worked. But we’re not 100% sure that opening Cuba up to American trade and commerce is going to turn the island nation into a budding democratic nation, either.

Where was Fidel?

Here’s our final observation about yesterday’s news: Where was Fidel Castro? We didn’t see a single photo of him on the historic day. His health/physical condition must be in poor shape. After all, Fidel rarely misses an opportunity to jump into a moment. And because he didn’t, it has to make you wonder if he was physically unable to.

Why the falling gas prices could supercharge the economic recovery

One of the familiar refrains about the economic recovery is that many Americans -- particularly those with lower incomes and those living in rural areas -- just haven’t felt it. But enter the falling gas prices. Per our new NBC/WSJ poll, 50% of Americans say these declining gas prices have had either a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of impact on them. And guess what: That includes 60% of Americans who have incomes below $30,000; 63% of rural respondents; and 59% of Americans with a high school education or less. Bottom line: If more and more begin to feel the economic recovery, you can look back to the moment when gas prices started to drop below $3 a gallon.

More from the NBC/WSJ/Telemundo Latino oversample

Here’s more from our NBC/WSJ/Telemundo oversample of Latino Americans: “The new survey also shows that Latino approval of the Republican Party continues to sputter, with just 24 percent giving the GOP positive ratings versus 42 percent offering a negative assessment. And 62 percent of Latinos say that Republican elected officials are not doing well at addressing the concerns of their community - a percentage almost unchanged since 2010. Those preferences could have big consequences for the 2016 election. Just 27 percent of Latinos believe it would better for the country to have a Republican as the next president, versus 49 percent who say a Democrat would be better. (Although, it's worth noting, Latinos also say that the next president should take a different approach than Obama, by a margin of 59 percent to 34 percent.)”

Senate Democrats confirm most judges since 1980

Lastly, we’ve pointed out the congressional productivity -- or lack thereof -- from the 113th Congress, which has now officially ended. But according to NBC’s Frank Thorp, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is gloating about how many judges the 113th Congress was able to confirm, noting that the 132 District and Circuit judges confirmed in the last two years was more than any other Congress since 1980. According to a table released by Senate Democrats, over the past 33 years, only the 96th Congress, which spanned from 1979-1980, confirmed more judges, having confirmed 198.

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